Nugent was born in New York. After he graduated from Williams College in 1975, he went to sea aboard freighters and canvas-fliers. He sailed solo across the Atlantic Ocean four times. His fifth crossing ended prematurely when the catamaran he was sailing capsized; he was rescued five days later. In the mid-1980s, Nugent mounted solo expeditions in search of the Pink-headed Duck on the Brahmaputra River and Mokele-mbembe in the Congo. He may have seen both, but his sightings remain unconfirmed. He wrote a non-fiction book about each expedition. Nugent changed gears in 1992 to become a foreign correspondent, first for Men's Journal and then as a staff member of Spin. He left journalism in 2002 and to work on his third book.